Vicar's Sermon - Epiphany 2019
I can understand Doctor Who’s Tardis going off course, (it not being overly precise in where it ends up in any one episode) but, in view of the fact that the wise men (the Magi) had to find one particular baby born in a very particular place can anyone tell me why they were in Jerusalem?
Star Gazing, it would seem, is not a very precise science – if ‘science’ is the word for what these gentlemen were doing. As for ‘following a star’ for precise directions…you might as well attempt to find the rainbow’s end! Are we really meant to believe that the star sent down a ‘sat nav precise’ beam that highlighted the exact doorway in Bethlehem through which the wise men were to pass as per the Christmas Cards you took from your shelves yesterday? Well, ‘for the sake of the story’ I suppose that is precisely what we’re expected to believe…but note that important caveat ‘for the sake of the story’: stories have their own inner logic that it doesn’t pay to disturb. But we’re still left with the question: ‘why did these star- trekkers end up in Jerusalem?’
Assumptions. I think they made an assumption – that’s the best I can offer. They had taken their measurements, done their calculations, consulted their records, interpreted the evidence and come to a conclusion that caused them to abandon their day jobs, climb on the nearest camel and head west but they carried with them more than their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh….they carried in their heads a whole stack of assumptions about power, kingship and leadership. And so they took a wrong turn…and found themselves having an uncomfortable interview with one of the most violent, paranoid rulers the ancient world had ever known: Herod. This is the Herod who will ensure that each of his royal palaces has multiple escape routes so fearful is he of assassination. This is the Herod who will arrange for all his advisers to be killed upon his death (including members of his own family) in an attempt to ensure that his successor would be of his own choosing. The somewhat esoteric, otherworldly academics we know as the magi…take tea with the king who could so easily have them for breakfast, having rather naively asked (in the streets of Jerusalem and within earshot of Herod no less) ‘Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?’
These ‘wise men’ are about to learn an important lesson and they learn it in fear for their lives: assume nothing, question everything, most importantly be prepared to change your mind. For change their mind they must if they are to find the Christ-child.
‘Assumptions’ are difficult things. Until we question them we aren’t really aware that they are there at all. And questioning assumptions can be disturbing, being disturbed can be frightening and people who are frightened tend to show their fear in the classic ‘fight or flight’ responses. Herod was frightened (the text tells us this) and he fights. We see that in his cunning, we see it in his subsequent decision to order the slaughter of every new born baby boy in Bethlehem – there is only one King in Jewry and Herod believes it to be him. Thankfully, having realized their mistake, the wise men do not ‘fly’ their quest , they regroup, take stock of the new information they have received (courtesy of Herod’s own wise men) and they persevere. The evidence that they have leads them to Jesus and they have to get their heads around of what Kingship really means as they kneel before Him.
I suppose these star men (who within their own culture were regarded as penetrating the secrets of the gods but who, in western society trod a narrow line between respectability and charlatanism)…these ‘Trekkies’ were converted. The light that they’d been given brought them so far. They combined this with the light from the scriptures we call the Old Testament and then they were prepared to re-think their assumptions to allow for the possibility that God’s chosen King might just reveal Himself in an ordinary house, with ordinary parents, in an ordinary town far from the purple of the court in Jerusalem.
We all make this journey – though most of us do it without the camels. It is not as if the heavens don’t ‘speak of the glory of God is it’? The created universe is overflowing with wonders that lead us to the big questions of life. The psalmist asked, ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him?’ We too wonder what the purpose of our lives might be within the ageless, unchanging round of the stars in their heavens. Some folk can see no meaning in creation, no purpose, nothing but emptiness as they gaze into the night sky. No God, no creator. Humanity dwarfed by the billions of light years that stretch into God knows where. For them meaninglessness can lead to deep depression, nihilism and destruction or to its opposite- wild morality-free hedonism that will eat, drink and be merry before this one life is past.
But what if we challenge this assumption that there is no God? What if we challenge the idea that there is no room for God in this world; that science has squeezed Him out of existence? What if we rediscover an understanding of God that demolishes the foolishness of simply seeing Him as a God of the gaps…the gaps that we can’t explain through our own knowledge,…and sees the whole universe as being dependent upon His gracious loving, sustaining purpose and will? Then we might see the world through eyes of wonder and use our best abilities to discern God’s hand within it? Then we might allow ourselves to listen afresh to those who speak of a sense of God ‘within and around’ them, flashing forth like ‘shook foil’ from creations’ corners (as the poet put it). Then, instead of dismissing the whole idea of ‘faith’ as old fashioned, we might rediscover the electric current of Life that runs through all faiths (for it has its ultimate origins in God) and find that Life perfectly expressed in the person of Christ? But we’d need to challenge our assumptions to think this way surely?
One of the greatest assumptions of modern western society is that ‘God is dead’. One of the greatest assumptions of even Christian people in this country is that even if there is a God He doesn’t do anything. Really? Do we have the courage as a church to continue to make room for Him in the inn of our thinking and doing so that we form truly Christian community that draws its life from a Living God?
The wise men were wise not least because they were prepared to change direction, to admit they were wrong. The fact that they knelt before the child shows that they had learned something of how God works amongst us: He humbles himself, takes the form of a slave and is born in human likeness’ (as St. Paul puts it). They realise that the Word must become flesh’ (as St. John describes). They kneel low to present their gifts yes, but they kneel low because that’s where you will find God – in the ordinary, the outwardly unexceptional but truly remarkable incarnate child. They pay him homage – this One who will declare those who serve to be the greatest in His kingdom, the child to be the image of the Kingdom, the unclean the invited guests, the persecuted and unwanted to be blessed in God’s eyes. In the middle of the night, following the star they were up for change. They were prepared to learn new things, willing to challenge all they thought they knew, to lay it aside to find the King, kneel and adore. What a journey they went on…are we there yet?